Luke, aged 9, was referred by the family’s allocated Social Worker following a particularly difficult divorce, resulting in Luke living with his father. With his parent’s permission, the school asked if I could make a school visit to talk with both Luke and his teacher, Mrs. Robinson, in order to deal with his problems at school.
I arrived at the school during break time, Mrs Robinson was waiting for me in the classroom and relayed the problems; Luke was extremely disruptive in class; rarely completed homework or came equipped for school and found it difficult to settle down after break times. This meant Luke having to sit at the top of the classroom facing a wall during lessons in an attempt to prevent him from being distracted or from distracting other.
I asked Mrs Robinson whether there were any occasions, at all, when Luke had not been disruptive in the classroom – she thought there might have been a day in the previous month when he seemed to be getting on with his work without any disruption. I asked whether she could remember an occasion when Luke had completed and returned his homework – Mrs. Robinson remembered a day last week when he had returned it and placed it in the special tray that she kept for returned homework. On being asked whether he ever returned to the classroom in a calm and appropriate manner – she could not remember there ever being an occasion when he had.
I asked if Luke could be brought to the classroom at this point and Mrs. Robinson asked if I needed to see him alone – I advised her that I was sure that she was going to be a very important part of the solution and asked her to stay.
When Luke arrived, I shook his hand and said that I had been having a very interesting conversation with Mrs. Robinson about him and that “Mrs. Robinson tells me that last month you had a good day in class and got on with your work well and I was wondering if you could tell me how you did that?”
Luke looked puzzled – he had imagined, I’m sure, that he was being called to discuss his behaviour problems and it took him a moment to take my question in.
He eventually answered “Yeh, I didn’t get told off or anything”. I leaned forward to convey my interest and asked him to talk me through as much as he could remember from that day. He could only remember odd bits – “I didn’t get told off and I did my work good”. I asked Mrs. Robinson what she remembered of that day and she replied “Well it was just a quiet, working day, Luke was sitting working well and I didn’t have to move him, he put his hand up to ask a question…”
I interrupted and asked Luke “How did Mrs. Robinson respond to you when you put your hand up? Did she see you straight away?” – Luke said that she didn’t but that he had waited for her and she saw him. I then asked further questions of Luke “How did Mrs. Robinson help you to have a good day? What was she doing? How was she talking with you? How comes you were able to stay out front for the whole day?”
Luke replied “Because I was good, she didn’t have to tell me off or put me back on the wall…”
I then said that Mrs. Robinson had told me that recently he had done his homework, walked in to class and placed it in the tray – could he please tell me how he had done that: “Take me back to the night before – what did you do differently at home that meant that you were able to do the homework?”. Luke explained that his father had turned the TV off and had sat down to read his newspaper and Luke had been bored so had got his homework out of his bag and did it.
I asked Luke how he calmed himself down after breaks. Mrs. Robinson, thinking I had misheard our earlier discussion, attempted to remind me that he wasn’t able to calm himself down after breaks and I conveyed my deliberate mistake to her by non-verbals and asked the question again.
Luke said that he just came back into class but that “Miss said I’m still noisy”. I suggested that “it must be very difficult for people who are playing football, running races and having fun to suddenly stop and put on a different feeling to go back into class“ and he agreed.
I said that I wondered how children could “put on that different feeling – if it were a mask or something?” How could they “get ready for class” and “at what point the getting ready for class would happen? Which bell – the first one or the second and whereabouts it would happen – in the queue or elsewhere?”
Luke said that he thought saying the word “calm” would be a good way of getting ready do come back into class and that the first bell would be the best way because then you’d get extra seconds for the “calm” to work.
I asked Luke what would be different in the classroom when he came back from the playground and he said that Mrs. Robinson wouldn’t have to keep telling him to be quiet – I asked what she would be saying instead and he said she would be “saying nothing, not even saying my name, just smiling at me and tell me to sit down at my place”. I asked him where his “place” would be and he pointed to the seats in front “somewhere out here, near my friend James”.
I then asked “On a scale of 1-10 Luke, with 1 being that you are never going to get off the wall and 10 being you could face the front – what number are you on?”. He replied “a 10 for me but not for Mrs. Robinson”. I asked what number he thought Mrs. Robinson might be on and he replied “maybe a 1”. I then asked Luke, that if that were true, what needed to happen so that Mrs. Robinson could get to a 2 and he said that he needed to “stop astracting [distracting] everyone”.
I asked Mrs. Robinson what number she was actually on and she replied “much higher than that – I would like my wall back!”
I then asked Luke “If you went home tonight, went to bed and went to sleep and while you were sleeping a “magic” thing happened and the reasons why you had to sit at the wall had disappeared – when you got to school tomorrow, how would you know?”
Luke said he would come into class, put his bag on one of the front chairs and Mrs. Robinson wouldn’t stop him. Then he would put his homework in the tray and sit down and would work and not “astract” anyone. I asked how Mrs. Robinson would know this magic thing had happened and he replied “Because she wouldn’t have to move me back”.
I then talked him through the day; the break time; the calm mask; putting his hand up if he wanted to ask a question; then leaving school and going home and repeating the homework incident [with Mrs. Robinson being asked to telephone Luke’s father and thank him for his “strategy” of turning the TV off so as to encourage Luke to do his homework] and asked if they all agreed that the “magic” day could start tomorrow or whether there was a reason why it couldn’t. Neither Luke nor Mrs. Robinson could think of any reason and it was agreed that as from the next morning, Luke could come in and sit out front to start the new day off.
I wished Luke well and he left the classroom.
Mrs. Robinson said that she was greatly encouraged to hear the part she could play in the solution rather than be left with a problem and that she would take full part in the “magic” day.
By focusing on the times when the problem wasn’t happening at the very beginning of the session – it engaged Luke immediately as he had been expecting, yet again, to hear the things he had been doing wrong.
By focusing on the times when he had met expectations – Luke was encouraged to see that he had strengths and had achieved in the past and could achieve again.
In talking through “who will be doing what the day after the problem is solved?” Luke could identify what small things he could do; that Mrs. Robinson could do and what could change at home that would help him.
In normalizing the difficulty of making the change of mood from playground to classroom for all children, Luke was able to see the normality of it and think of a strategy for children to use that would allow them to “get ready for class”.
Most importantly during this session – a watershed was instigated thereby offering the possibility of change, of starting and achieving something rather than stopping something.
By offering Mrs Robinson the opportunity to see herself as part of the solution rather than part of the problem she was more involved and more motivated to notice any change in Luke.
Luke’s father would be asked to help subtly and without recriminations, as only he would really know whether his turning off of the TV was a “creative decision” or a random exception.
I was contacted 3 weeks later by Mrs. Robinson to say that the “Magic Day” had been happening every day with Luke sitting out front and getting closer to his ultimate goal which was to sit next to James. The “calm” mask was working very well and Luke was “conforming to expectations whilst in class” but would I be able to come in and do a similar session between Luke and the Dinner Ladies who said that Luke was ill mannered at lunchtime? I suggested to Mrs. Robinson that she invite Luke and the Dinner Ladies to describe the “Magic Day……….”
Often it is not change itself that is difficult to instigate, no matter how long the problem has existed or indeed, how great the problem, but the belief that change is possible. Often it is not creating the “watershed” that is difficult but the belief that people will respond to it.
My experience is that offering a watershed – excites change. Accepting that change is possible and describing it in small steps “what will be different?” “who will notice?” – allows change to be imagined.
By inviting people to rehearse in their heads how they will achieve change “what happens then?” “how did you do that?” – people are able to see their strengths, coping abilities and strategies in preparation for change.
(c) Eileen Murphy Consultants 2016